Thu, 02 Jul 2020

SOFIA -- International media organizations have reported on ties between assassinated Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and a 2012 terrorist bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver.

But Bulgaria's current political leadership and its judicial system are not making the link -- backtracking from statements made by previous government officials.

"We cannot make such a connection," Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov told reporters in Sofia last week after consultations with his National Security Advisory Council.

"This is related to a publication in foreign media that is making this link, and it is retransmitted here in Bulgaria," Borisov said. 'So the more quiet and the more careful we are in our statements.... Peace and diplomacy are our aims.'

Borisov did not specify which "foreign media" he was referring to that was linking the 2012 bus bombing to Soleimani, who was killed on January 3 by a U.S. air strike near Baghdad International Airport.

Iran's alleged links to the July 18, 2012, suicide bombing at Burgas Airport have been reported by The New York Times, the BBC, Britain's The Guardian, The Jerusalem Post, France24 television, and others.

Those reports implicate Soleimani through his ties to proxy fighters in the military wing of Lebanon's Iranian-funded Hizballah.

As commander of Iran's Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Soleimani had coordinated operations involving Hizballah. He also was responsible for coordinating operations with Tehran's other proxy militias in the region -- in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories.

Both Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group deny any involvement in the Bulgarian bombing.

But the Burgas bombing has played a role in a European Union decision to blacklist Hizballah's military wing as a terrorist organization.

Senior officials in previous Bulgarian governments also have accused Hizballah of carrying out the bus bombing in the Black Sea resort city.

As commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani had coordinated operations involving Hizballah.

In February 2013, Bulgaria's then-Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov announced that two suspected accomplices in the attack were Hizballah operatives of Lebanese descent.

In July 2013, on the first anniversary of the bombing, Bulgaria's Interior Ministry said it had no doubt the Iranian-funded Hizballah was behind the attack.

It said intelligence agencies from other European Union countries, the United States, Israel, Australia, Canada, and Lebanon had all helped in the investigation.

Bulgarian prosecutors and the state security agency DANS later identified the suspected accomplices as Meliad Farah, an Australian, and Canadian Hassan El Hajj Hassan.

Bulgarian investigators in 2014 also announced that the suicide bomber had been identified through DNA analysis of his fingers as Lebanese-born French citizen Muhammad Hassan el-Husseini.

They said Husseini was using a fake driver's license from the U.S. state of Michigan with the name Jacque Felipe Martin when he carried out the attack.

Bulgaria has issued warrants for the arrests of both suspected accomplices and has notified Interpol that they are wanted for extradition.

Both are thought to have lived in Lebanon for several years before the attack but are no longer residing there. Their current whereabouts are unknown.

The coffins of the five Israelis who were killed during the terror attack in Burgas in 2012.

In early 2018, a special court in Sofia began a trial in absentia against them.

That court is allowing civil claims of more than $60 million to be made against the suspects.

But the Bulgarian court is refusing to allow financial claims against Hizballah on the grounds that Hizballah was not named in the indictments.

Relatives of the Israeli victims are demanding that the Bulgarian court also hold Hizballah accountable -- urging in July for the Bulgarian government to "overcome its political considerations and add the Hizballah terrorist group to the indictment."

Israel was the first to blame Iran, claiming just a day after the bombing that the attack had been carried out under orders from Tehran by Iran's proxy fighters in Hizballah.

Israeli intelligence reportedly received that information from an informant within Hizballah.

Israel said it was just one in a series of terrorist attacks around the world carried out by Iran's Quds Force and Hizballah operatives.

"The time has come for all countries that know the truth to speak it," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on July 19, 2012. "Yesterday's attack in Bulgaria was perpetrated by Hizballah, Iran's leading terrorist proxy."

The New York Times reported the same day that senior officials in then-U.S. President Barack Obama's administration had corroborated Netanyahu's accusations -- saying the suicide bomber was a member of a Hizballah cell in Bulgaria that was looking for Israeli targets.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The New York Times that the attack was carried out by a Hizballah bomber "acting under broad guidance" from the militant group's main sponsor, Iran, to strike Israeli targets when opportunities become available.

Washington also has linked the Burgas bus bombing to a wave of attempted attacks by Hizballah operatives under the Quds Force command who 'have been caught preparing attacks as far afield as Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Cyprus, Egypt, Peru, and Thailand.'

Israel says a coordinated twin magnet-bomb attack against Israeli motorists in Tbilisi and New Delhi in February 2012 also was part of the global terrorist campaign by Hizballah and the Quds Force.

Such attacks are seen as retaliation by Tehran, which blames Israel for the February 2008 assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizballah's second-in-command, and the killings of four Iranian nuclear scientists from 2010-2012.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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